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Jonny Woo's Unroyal Variety: 'Cabaret has become a victim of its own success'

As his Unroyal Variety night opens at Hackney Empire, cabaret and drag star Jonny Woo explains why he thinks cabaret might be losing its edge

Jonny Woo and his Unroyal Variety
(© Angus Stewart)

I was living in New York in 2000 and making work on the emerging burlesque scene. The women working then such as Julie Atlas Muz and Dirty Martini, were making work that was as much political and feminist as absurd. I, with my friend Brandon Olson was learning about spoken word, playing with our take on drag, heels, jockstraps and lipstick. This was my entry into the world of cabaret.

Back in London, 2003, I was made artist in residence of a new, out of the way restaurant and cabaret space Bistrotheque. It was a glorious messy residency down a lost Hackney back alley. I bought back my ideas from NYC and alongside other performers such as Bourgeois and Maurice, with their own brand of 'neo-cabaret' we forged a scene that was challenging, confrontational and queer. London was giving birth to its own burlesque scene.

There was a point where we stopped making work on our terms

I became involved via the tremendous Boom Boom Club. This event had started out underground at a small venue in the city and joined them once they were at The Vaults in Waterloo. This was loud noisy entertainment. It was about getting wrecked and watching in-yer-face sexually charged top-notch variety. In Edinburgh around the same time, La Clique had established itself as THE show to go to and be seen to be going to, offering a superbly polished, superbly sexy late night circus, cabaret extravaganza. The big rival to the main late night comedy draws. The night had an unrivalled frisson.

These are just a few examples. For a good decade the scene was vibrant, sexy, subversive and basically grown on the terms of the artists themselves. The audience entered our world.

Burlesque has definitely become stereotypically vintage

In a way, I think cabaret has become a victim of its own success. It's amazing that so many artists and shows have had that success and is testament to the talent. But what is left of 'the cabaret scene'? I think there came a point when we stopped making work on our terms and started delivering what the audience expected cabaret to be. Burlesque has definitely become stereotypically vintage and I don't feel the same empowerment that I felt from watching Julie Atlas Muz wrestle herself free from ropes in NYC. With cabaret's success, comes its demise.

Cabaret was never made to be served up as a secondary course to someone's night out or as back drop to a product launch. I've often said of my own work that I go out on stage almost not wanting the audience to like me. I think it's a healthy starting point, it is less not wanting to be disliked, it's more: this is what I'm gonna do and you're going to like it or at least suck it up!

Cabaret isn't dead but maybe its time to chuck out the round tables, re-group and come back nice and grubby. Vive Cabaret!

Unroyal Variety runs at Hackney Empire on 3 and 4 November.